Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Contemporary filmmakers are always challenged when trying to put a new spin on the old West.
Already this year, Kevin Costner's "Open Range" took the venerable squatters vs. ranchers plot and added an introspective, violent flair to it. And next week "The Last Samurai" takes Tom Cruise's Civil War-era gunfighter and transplants him into traditional Japan.
Director Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") wrestles with his own Western revision in "The Missing" -- which is basically an updating of John Ford's 1956 epic "The Searchers." He amplifies the brutality of the environment and adds a thick layer of Indian mysticism. "The Missing" isn't the equal of these other superior pictures, but it's a well-crafted, well-acted diversion.
Based on the novel "The Last Ride" by Thomas Eidson, the story takes place in 1885 New Mexico. Cate Blanchett stars as Maggie, a frontier "healer" who is raising her rebellious teenage daughter Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood) and younger child Dot (Jenna Boyd).
Maggie's estranged father Sam (Tommy Lee Jones) rides back into her life after a 20-year absence in which he abandoned his family to live with the Apaches. But she immediately rejects him. Only after Lilly is kidnapped by a rogue group led by Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig) -- an Apache with witch-like abilities -- does Maggie ally with her dad in hopes of retrieving the girl.
Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett shine as an estranged father and daughter who reunite to save their kidnapped kin from an Apache witch. The brutality of this revisionist western from director Ron Howard is affecting, but too often the film's obsession with Indian mysticism undercuts the realism of the environment.
The family embarks on a desperate quest to stop the bloodthirsty crew before they can reach the Mexican border and sell their female captives as slaves.
Howard and screenwriter Ken Kaufman ("Space Cowboys") sidestep the John Wayne-type stereotypes which might hamper a project that features Indians as its main villains. Better yet, they don't go overboard trying to cater to the Hollywood PC crowd (a la "Dances with Wolves") by portraying all the indigenous characters as noble and the whites as leering, amoral degenerates.
Instead, the point of the film is that the West is becoming integrated. Traits from all cultures -- white, Indian and Hispanic -- are being assimilated into the New Mexico landscape. Thus, morality and lawlessness mix into all kinds of cocktails until there is a real blurry line between the good guys and bad guys.
Part of the reason the film is able to pull of this ambiguous quality is because of the strength of its leads. Blanchett's feisty character is not all that different on paper from "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Yet the Australian actress is so imbued with a kind of steely intelligence that she makes this role convincing.
However, the movie is really Jones' show. He admirably steers clear of the pitfalls of what could potentially be a preposterous (and borderline offensive) character.
One associate offers the ancestral saying, "Moving spirits don't make happy men," as a means of summing up the man. Jones plays this career wanderer as being in tune with nature yet world-weary from past sorrows -- adding a touch of holier-than-thou humor to liven things up.
Credit should also go to Schweig, who portrays the wicked adversary dubbed a Brujo (Spanish for "witch"). Under layers of unflattering prosthetic makeup (snake wounds?), Schweig speaks only in his character's native Apache tongue, so it is the impact of his physical performance that must carry him beyond the subtitles. He depicts Pesh-Chidin as a man who once used brutality as a means to further a legitimate goal, but now employs torture and murder because that has become his only true language.
Despite these performances, "The Missing" loses steam at the two-hour mark. There's just a little too much running and chasing and escapes gone awry.
It is never in doubt that the Brujo and Jones will meet for a duel to the death. So any plot device that looks like it will lead away from this conclusion is quickly disregarded by the viewer.
Also, the mysticism angle is taken too far, especially when the villain uses his totemistic powers to cause Maggie to fall ill. The scene of her exorcism is meant to be creepy but the result is more hokey than anything else. The whole event plays like a voodoo ritual straight from "Bride of Chucky."
The great revisionist westerns such as "Unforgiven" and "Ride With the Devil" gain strength from grounding their stories in realism. For a few too many stretches that factor is the main quality missing from "The Missing."